I love following the swimming coverage at the Olympics, and something that always stands out for me is the height of the competitors at such an elite level. It’s not unusual for them to tower over many of the officials and observers. Which got me wondering, how tall are Olympic swimmers? Luckily for me, some researchers over the years have collected data about the height of swimmers competing at an elite level. And it turns out professional swimming is definitely a tall person’s sport. But that’s not to say that some swimmers of more average height haven’t made their mark too!
How Tall Are Olympic Swimmers?
Over the years, there have been many Olympic competitors and medallists in the pool, but most of them share one thing in common: they are above average height. Here are some stats:
- At the 2016 Rio Olympics, the average height of male Olympic swimmers was 6’2, while for women it was 5’9.
- In Tokyo in 2021, the average height of a male gold medallist in the pool swimming events was just over 6’3. Only one male gold medallist was under 6’ tall.
- 6’3 is 6 inches taller than the average height for American men.
- Also at Tokyo, the average height of a female gold medallist in the female pool swimming events was roughly just over 5’10.
- That’s 6 inches taller than the average American woman.
Are All Olympic Swimmers Tall?
One study of 370 Olympic medallists in the 50m and 100m freestyle events between 1908 and 2016 supports the idea that successful male and female swimmers are just getting taller and taller. The study revealed that the mean body height of male swimmers between 1908 and 1968 was just over 183 cm (6’), but increased to over 193 cm (6’3) between 1972-2016. For the women, there was also an increase. Between 1908 and 1968, the mean body height was just over 170 cm (5’5). Between 1972-2016, that number jumped to over 177 cm (5’8) with swimmers over 180 cm (5’9) making their first appearance in the 1980s.
So how come Olympic swimming came to be dominated by taller than average people, and does it mean swimmers of average or below average height just shouldn’t bother? Let’s take a look.
Why Are Olympic Swimmers Tall?
It’s basic physics that being tall gives physical advantages in swimming. Extra height means having longer bones in the arms, legs, hands, and feet, which gives a massive boost for swimming. Tall swimmers have a proportionally larger arm span, so their strokes are longer and more efficient.
In fact arm span really is key here. Not only was Michael Phelps tall (6’4), but his arm span was out of proportion with his body: a whopping 6’7! This gave him a physical advantage for propelling himself quickly through the water.
You can also think of a tall person’s hands and feet like fins that aid significantly while swimming. As you push back the water with a larger-than-average surface area, you get more boost, and thus, you’re faster. This is why having a longer torso and arms with strong legs is ideal for swimmers.
Are There Short Olympic Swimmers?
Just because tall people dominate the sport doesn’t mean that there are no icons of Olympic swimming under 6 feet tall. While it’s true that you’re not likely to find many short medalists in the speed categories of 50m or 100m, for longer events, there have been standouts. Three names are notable here: Brad Cooper (not the handsome actor, that one is tall), Tomomi Morita, and Tomoru Honda.
- Cooper, who is 5’3, was the 400m freestyle gold medalist at the 1972 Olympics in Munich.
- Morita, who is 5’7, took bronze medals in the 100m backstroke and as a member of the 4 × 100m relay at the 2004 Olympics in Athens.
- And Honda, who is 5’8, won the silver medal in the 200m butterfly in Tokyo in 2021.
This just goes to show that whilst genetics do have a big influence on the likelihood of succeeding in swimming at an elite level, they’re not everything.
My Experience as a Tall Swimmer
When I was 17, two other friends and I took swimming lessons so we could go on vacation. I was significantly taller than both my friends, but I was a heavier bloke back then and I needed to lose a few pounds. I assumed that because they were lighter than me, they would have the upper hand in swimming, but I was surprised how closely matched we were in the pool. Even with little experience, I quickly started swimming faster than them. My height was giving me a meaningful advantage, even though I felt my body required improvement overall. We never did get to go on that vacation in the end, but at least I still learned a valuable skill!
Can Swimming Make You Taller?
There is a myth that swimming makes you thinner and taller. It’s true that if you take up swimming regularly, you may lose weight due to the intense cardio involved. But, it’s not going to make you grow any taller.
What swimming does do is support your body weight and allow the spaces between your joints to open up. This gives the impression of an elongated spine and limbs for a while after you get out of the pool. However, the change won’t be permanent, and most importantly, swimming can’t give you longer bones.
How Tall are Olympic Swimmers – Summary
Olympic swimmers are typically much taller than the average American man or woman. About 6 inches taller in fact! The mechanics of swimming mean that tall people, with a proportionately longer arm span and larger hands and feet, have a physical advantage in the pool.
At the end of the day, the nature of the Olympics is that only a tiny number of athletes will ever be good enough. But that doesn’t mean we can’t be inspired by them to keep going back to the pool, and use swimming to become our strongest, fittest, healthiest selves!
Are You Tall Enough To Swim at the Olympics?
Let us know your height in the comments box down below. Have you noticed it giving you an advantage in the pool?
More About Swimming and Your Body
- The ideal torso length for swimming
- Can swimming give you bad posture?
- Does swimming make you hungry?
- Choosing the right swimming lane
- Is swimming better for fitness than cycling?
- Mazzilli F. Body Height and Swimming Performance in 50 and 100 m Freestyle Olympic and World Championship Swimming Events: 1908 – 2016. Journal of Human Kinetics. 2019.
- Mallett, A. et al. The age, height, and body mass of Olympic swimmers: A 50-year review and update. International Journal of Sports Science & Coaching. 2021.
- Saavedra et al. A multivariate analysis of performance in young swimmers. Pediatric Exercise Science. 2010.